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’30’ Is Adele’s Emotionally Rawest, Riskiest and Best Record: Review

Back in the teletype days, “-30-” was the mark reporters used to denote the end of a story. That Adele has named her fourth album “30” is coincidence, since she draws her LP titles from her age when most of the songs were written. Still, the antiquated coinage is sort of fitting anyway for an album that’s like a long exhalation that’s saying IT … IS … FINISHED, to borrow a favorite phrase of writers, messiahs and divorcees everywhere.

What’s very much done on “30” (which comes out Friday) is Adele’s marriage, as almost anyone sentient knows from the abundance of walk-up media, from twin global Vogue covers to an Oprah sit-down viewed in the U.S this week by nearly 10 million. These appearances all have her bringing up the fact that she instigated the split as casually as if she were discussing giving up aspartame for green tea. Rest assured, though, that there’s nothing casual about the way she treats the dissolution on “30,” an album that meets the breach with enough wrenching, life-and-death drama to leave you completely spent by the time its hour is up, then ready to immediately reinvest. Because, besides being that exhausting, it’s also that good.

A few lighter-hearted songs in the middle of the album about moving on give us a hint of what Adele-on-the-rebound might be like. But the real rebound, for now, is in Adele as an artist, and that has a lot to do with how ridiculously candid she’s getting, again, along with the increased quotient of musical chances she’s taking. Her previous album, 2015’s “25,” took on the appearance of being that confessional, but she admitted in interviews that it didn’t really represent her then-reasonably-contented headspace … that she was relying on old heartaches for new material, so that the record kind of ended up being a “21 II.” With that water-treading sequel, she’d zigged to making the weakest of her four albums. With “30,” she’s zagged to a richer, more compelling collection that feels like her best.

That’s not to say “30” will be nearly the biggest seller of them all (it won’t) or that it has a string of obvious world-conquering singles embedded within it (although it has a good enough handful of un-obvious ones). But there’s a bracing maturity in these 12 tracks that’s more emotionally complex and intriguing than the rather more easy-to-follow woe of the preceding three collections. And although “30” is at times the rawest and most sobering of the records she’s made to date, it also manages conversely to be the most fun, in its emotionally rattling fashion, as Adele mixes it up with an array of producers and stylistic pastiches to arrive at something that has a sense of play to go with all the sadness and self-laceration. It’s a kick in the pants as well as a solid cry. And the fact that it feels a little messier than her other albums is all the more fitting for a trip through a divorce court of the mind.

The very first track, “Strangers by Nature,” is a tipoff that some different things will be afoot on this collection. It’s the only number co-produced by Oscar-winning film composer Ludwig Göransson, albeit one of five with an orchestra conducted and/or arranged by MVP David Campbell (yes, that’s Beck’s symphonically inclined dad). All those strings come to sound so ’50s-lush, like something out of a Douglas Sirk movie, it’s hard to tell whether they’re there to heighten the melodrama or add a wink. If it’s not 100% clear on this opener whether the mood is supposed to be dead-serious or she and her collaborators are meaning to imbue things with a wee bit of delicious musical irony, that’s not the last time on the album those contrasts come into play. At a few points, she even sounds the slightest bit like her onetime rival Amy Winehouse, as she proves nicely capable of restraining her full-bathos diva-ness in favor of a greater embrace of jazz-style singing.

The Adele you thought you knew comes more sharply back into focus with the second track, the Greg Kurstin-co-produced “Easy on Me,” which was picked as the first single for a reason: Musically, at least, it’s the one where she’s most saying “Hello,” again, and it makes a good segue into some of the album’s riskier deviations from form. Even here, though, she’s not the Adele of past records, once you get into content. She’s grappling with being the possible offendee, not the offended, as she asks an ex for something that feels like forgiveness for leaving — even if there’s more chutzpah than contrition in her tone. In “30,” leaving means never having to say you’re sorry, but it does involve constantly acknowledging the costs of moving on. After having spent all these years identifying with Adele as the scorned party, is the world ready to embrace her exploring how she’s caused other people pain by going indie, maritally speaking? (Based on the initial response to “Easy on Me,” the answer to that is probably is a no-brainer “yes.”)

Track No. 3 is where Adele’s audience will collectively push its earbuds in further to hear more clearly, not to explore the sonics but because the track has snippets of having some extraordinarily emotional conversations with her son, presumably captured on a smartphone in the midst of some especially fraught moments. “Mommy’s been having a lot of big feelings lately,” she says, in what counts as understatement. “I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing, at all…” Some of the comments may come off as TMI for a child, though it’s not clear if they’re all mother/son chats or some might be memos-to-self. “I’m having a bad day… I feel very stressed… I have a hangover.” She says “today is the first day since I left him,” that she is dealing head-on with the loneliness she’s been avoiding. After overcompensating by going out too much, she wants to “watch TV and have a bit of a bawl and be in my sweats.” (Her and the world, both.) If you’re wondering what kind of a bed these spoken thoughts are dropped into: It’s a nominally feel-good, almost seductive groove that starts out with a low-key electric piano and ends in one of those swirls of orchestration that return throughout the record. Basically, it’s kind of a chilled-out Sade track about being a torn-up single mom.

Having reduced you to a slightly weirded-out puddle, “30” then takes a three-song detour into a trio of its most overtly commercial songs. “Cry Your Heart Out,” despite the weepy title, rides along smoothly on another nice, Kurstin-provided groove, this one flirting with reggae. “I can’t get no relief, I’m so tired of myself / I swear I’m dead in the eyes / I have nothing to feel no more / I can’t even cry,” she protests. “I’ve never been more scared.” We did mention this is one of the potential singles, right? That’s because it doesn’t feel nearly as grim on record as it reads on paper. There’s a bit of levity in Adele’s self-overdubbed background vocals, which feel like the Andrews Sisters meeting Gwen Stefani meeting vintage soul to come in and give her a lift. And for those harrowing verses, there’s some affirmation in the chorus: “Cry your heart out / It’ll clean your face… / All love is devout / No feeling is a waste,” she sings, as a Hammond organ adds some warmth. Somewhere, you imagine Oprah approving, and possibly lighting up a spliff.

What follows that is “Oh My God,” a song that, from just its title, sounds like it might be one of the album’s harrowing-AF entries. Wrong guess, there: It’s the record’s sexy-AF breakout. “Oh My God” is also the closest Kurstin comes to trying to marry the music to the sounds of 2021, with a four-on-the-floor beat and some electro-squiggles, without making it sound like too far-flung an outlier. Although she’s “still spinning out of control from the fall” of her divorce, there is a “boy” who “give(s) good love, I won’t lie / It what keeps me coming back even though I’m terrified… / I know it’s wrong, but I want to have fun.”

There’s one more where that light banger came from. Max Martin and Shellback make a one-time co-producing/writing appearance with “Can I Get It,” which represents the record’s most obvious booster-shot-bop. It’s a track made up of so many disparate parts, figuring out whether or not they organically connect isn’t easy even on a third or fourth listen. But they’re some delectable parts, as Martin & Shellback’s Frankenstein-ian pop confection moves from solo acoustic guitar to brash electronic beat and back again. By the way, we won’t be the last to mention that those guitar strums on the chorus sound so blatantly “Faith”-ful, it’s like they’re daring you not to bring up George Michael.

“I Drink Wine” is the track that Adele-aholics have already decided is their favorite; they don’t even need to hear it, with that title. It won’t be a letdown, even though it’s all about letdowns. “How come we’ve both become a version of a person we don’t like?” she sings, over a solo piano bed that isn’t mournful, like the one in “Easy on Me,” but sweet and gospelly. That Hammond will make a comeback, too, along with background vocals that help take the song slightly to church, or at least the church of the poisoned mind. “Listen, I know how low I can go / I give as good as I get / You get the brunt of it all ‘cause you’re all I’ve got left,” she sings, in a doozy of a marital postgame recap.

Swinging the pendulum back toward fun, the song with the most unwieldy title, “All Night Parking (With Erroll Gardner) Interlude,” has Adele as a romantic chantoosie, singing fresh lyrics over a vintage Gardner jazz piano instrumental that’s embellished a bit with newly recorded trumpet and violin. She’s not drinking wine here so much as drinking Winehouse, or at least coming off as a friskier Norah Jones. This utterly charming lark will be the last time on the album she’s enjoying a night out as a newly single woman. Refasten your seatbelts; it’s still going to be a bumpy dark night of the soul.

She’s still sounding jazzy, but in a darker, chiding mode, on “Woman Like Me,” the one song on “30” where she’s really lashing out at an ex, or a soon-to-be ex. “Complacency is the worst trait to have — are you crazy?” she asks. “It is so sad a man like you could be so lazy.” She spins a scenario where a man, rather than rising to the occasion and embracing her boss-hood, has retreated to hang with his old circle. There’s a small world of romantic and class power dynamics to unpack as she lays out her case: “We come from the same place but you will never give it up / It’s where they make you feel powerful / That’s why you think I make you feel small / But that’s your projection, not my rejection.” The richness of the song comes in how she’s able to assert her power but also lick her wounds, as Adele insists she dared to really love for the first time and lost, not to another lover but maybe the most depressing rival of all — ennui. “I saw what my heart can really do / Now some other man will get the love I have for you / ‘Cause you don’t care.” Assuming this is autobiographical, it’s worth considering that the other party might have a good defense we won’t likely hear, but it’s sure bracing to hear Adele’s prosecution. Reading the cover stories, and watching the Oprah interview turn out to be far short of a tell-all, it seemed like there might remain a standing mystery amid all that explaining as to why Adele really left the marriage. Yet a rather stunning amount of it seems laid out just in this one song. She goes to a pretty dark place, and she’s not leaving us in the dark about it.

And we’re not to the two tracks that most listeners are likely to consider the album’s biggest twin stunners. Next up comes the Oprah-certified “Hold On,” in which all the self-possessed spit and vinegar of Adele’s preceding tirade disappears as she trains that same attention on herself. “I swear to God I am such a mess / The harder that I try, I regress / I am my own worst enemy / Right now I truly hate being me,” she sings, assuring her public that she is not nearly as charming as she seems. If she is not altogether successful in that, it’s still an unnerving amount of self-shade she’s throwing here. This one feels churchy, too, but in a splayed-across-an-empty-pew kind of way, with a more hopeful vocal refrain so faint it seems to be coming from the back of the cathedral: “Let time be patient / Let pain be gracious.” As with the preceding track, Inflo (the critically beloved mastermind behind Sault), takes over the co-producer/writer chair on this one, and clearly got her to take an elevator down a level or two beneath the ones she’s accessed before.

The most bravura vocal on an album that has a surfeit of them comes with the penultimate track, “To Be Loved” — seven minutes of nothing but Adele and co-writer-producer Tobias Jesso Jr.’s piano. It’s not just the best singing Adele has ever delivered; you might leave it thinking it’s one of the best vocals anyone has ever recorded. (That may just be the emotional Stockholm syndrome talking, this far into the track list, but you’ll see what we mean when you get there.) Both you and the marriage might feel dead as she delivers this edgy, operatic soliloquy, arguing for the necessity of giving up the safety and security of a barely serviceable union in the faith that a greater love is possible.

And then “30” finds its actual climax where it probably should — in a fun, cynical romp of a finale, one that takes just a little of the piss out of the sobriety of the last few songs. On “Love Is a Game” (no relation to Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game”… well, maybe a little), the strings kick back in and swell to their grandest, and Adele does an almost girl-group call-and-response with herself while overtly invoking the pop-soul records of the ’60s and early ’70s. At that concluding point, Adele makes it clear that she doesn’t need her ex, but doesn’t need any new lusts in her life either, because love sucks. Singing along and making up your own Shirelles or Pips gestures, you may be hard-pressed to disagree.

“30” is obviously a major entry in pop’s long divorce-album canon. Along with Kacey Musgraves’ recent “Star Crossed,” it falls into that tricky realm where no infidelity is being alleged as a source of rage, but inertia and carelessness are being asserted as  irreconcilable differences just as assiduously as if there’d been cheating. The feelings of guilt or pride that come with splitting under those circumstances aren’t always as easy to put in a four-minute song … which may explain why some of them on “30” are six or seven minutes. But you don’t have to render a judgment on her IRL situation to know she’s made the argument for going solo about as adroitly as anyone in her musical position has.

But if you’re shedding tears, maybe shed one more for the nation’s marriage counselors. Adele celebrates her own conscious uncoupling with enough visceral triumph that, come next week, it wouldn’t be a surprise if some family therapists could start getting voicemail messages that their services are no longer required. If “30” is on the AirPods, the paperwork may already be at the courthouse.


Columbia Records

CREDITS: Producers: Greg Kurstin, Inflo, Max Martin & Shellback, Tobias Jesso Jr., Shawn Everett, Ludwig Göransson, Joey Pecoraro. String arranger and conductor: David Campbell.

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